The root of Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s ministry at L’Abri was what Dr. Schaeffer came to call “true spirituality.” He was, characteristically enough, well ahead of the curve in his understanding of how young people were coming to think of “spiritual” practices as being divorced from any sort of organized religious identity and so, over time, he would develop the ideas that became his book True Spirituality and which grounded the work that went on at L’Abri.
Central to this idea was Schaeffer’s insistence that true spirituality must begin with death before it can move to life. If we do not truly understand our sin, Schaeffer reasoned, we will not understand God’s offer of redemption and restored fellowship with him.
In another one of the helpful essays in Sanctified by Grace St. Andrews theologian John Webster writes on these same themes of mortification and vivification. Given that his book on holiness is one of the best things you’ll ever read on the topic, it’s no surprise that this essay is also quite good.
For brevity’s sake, I will focus on only one aspect of the essay, although the whole thing is worth your time. (Seriously, go buy the book.)
We die so that we might live.
Webster closes the chapter by reflecting on the point of mortification and vivification:
In a culture ensnared by tawdry and ignoble conceptions of human flourishing, dedicated to hurtful appetites and unsure how to relieve its sorrow, mortification and vivification bear testimony to the gift of different possibilities by which creaturely life may be healed and enlivened. Dying and rising with Christ, believers exemplify a way to love life and see good days.”
He then closes with a quote from Pseudo-Macarius’s Fifty Spiritual Homilies:
Let us, therefore, pray that we may be put to death by his power and die to the world of the wickedness of darkness and that the spirit of sin may be extinguished in us. Let us put on and receive the soul of the heavenly spirit and be transported from the wickedness of darkness into the light of Christ. Let us rest in life forever.”
Again, I find my own background with faith hopelessly colors my reflections on this, but I couldn’t help thinking as I read that how desperately I needed to hear something like that earlier in my life.
The Need for Rest
The need was two-fold: First, I needed to see more clearly that the mortification of sin in an individual believer’s life is something initiated by God in the Gospel and that our response to him is precisely that—a response. My friends who have been to seminary have a simple phrase for summing up what Webster is describing here: “The indicatives drive the imperatives.” Because you have been crucified with Christ (indicative) you are now free from the dominion of sin and need not go on doing the things (imperative) that would kill you if left unattended by the kindness of God.
I was hardly alone in misunderstanding this point amongst my fellow late 90s-early 2000s youth group kids, but speaking only for myself I can say that my adolescent experience of the faith would have been wildly different if I had understood this point more clearly at an earlier age.
Second, I needed to see the call to vivification not as a shunning of all worldly goods and pleasures, and instead see it as an invitation to “rest in life forever.” Speaking only for myself, I well remember being a bundle of nervous energy throughout high school, both deeply zealous about my faith and equally confused about its application in my own life as well as in the places that I lived—my school, church, home, and so on. I can still remember during my junior year of high school (when I began reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy) how the adventurous prose and force of Chesterton’s argument pushed me toward a new understanding of Christian faith.
I can remember one day as I drove home from school being stopped at an intersection as I listened to one of my favorite CDs in the car. The windows were down, it was a perfect Nebraska spring day, and I felt a sense of rest I hadn’t quite known before. Between the pressures associated with being a teenager in a fundamentalist church, the difficulties of being a young Christian man in a public school, and the pressures associated with being a year away from college I had hardly ever felt at ease.
But as I was reading Chesterton I was beginning to enter a new world of Christian faith in which it was possible and even good to receive the invitation of the Gospel as a call to rest. Later I would hear Joe Pug’s “Hymn 101” and the magical line “I have come to be untroubled in my seeking.” That line still strikes me as a perfect summation of much of the Christian life. Because we are alive in Christ and because we are free in Christ, we can be at rest in God’s world. That invitation to rest is something that all Christians desperately need to hear.